Nantucket cranberry cake: seize the season


The sound of cranberry sauce being dropped from its can onto a serving plate.

“Ahhhhh….” The sound of an appreciative dessert-lover enjoying a bite of buttery, tender, tart-sweet cranberry cake.

PLOP is OK. But “Ahhhh…” So much more satisfying, when you’re a DIY-type person.

Read: home baker.

Being a Massachusetts gal, I admit to a certain nostalgic fondness for cranberries. Along with Wisconsin, southeastern Massachusetts provides America with most of its cranberry crop; I grew up across from a cranberry bog, and regularly drove past the headquarters of Ocean Spray, an agricultural cooperative with over 600 member farms.

Did you know that by clicking anywhere on this block of pictures, you can enlarge them to full size? Go ahead, give it a try; it’ll work for any of our photos.

From a distance, the typical summer cranberry bog looks like a simple green field. But get closer, and you’ll see a mass of tangled bushes set into a declivity in that field.

Around the edges of the field runs a water-filled trough – a portent of things to come.

When the berries are bright red and ready to harvest, one of two things will happen.

If the bog produces “consumer” cranberries, the kind you see in the produce section of your supermarket come November, the bushes are winnowed by machine, and the berries harvested much like wheat (only more gently).

If the cranberries are bound for cranberry juice or canned cranberry sauce, however, the bog is flooded. A machine sweeps up and down, churning the water and bushes and shaking loose the cranberries, which float to the surface of this temporary cranberry pond – where they’re easily gathered in.

Most of them, anyway – there are always some berries left floating around the edges, fair game for anyone passing by with a strainer and basket.

The cranberry harvest on Cape Cod is eagerly anticipated each fall by the locals.

Not only do they get to enjoy seeing a brilliant red floating carpet where formerly only green bushes showed; sometimes they get to help drive the machine, as well – as these two youngsters did on a recent sunny Sunday morning.

The end result?

Cranberries. Lots and lots of cranberries, ready to freeze, cook, or turn into a pie or cake.

While our site lists over 80 cranberry recipes, only 10 call for fresh cranberries: a testament, perhaps, to the short seasonality of this bright red, wonderfully tart fruit.

And to its relative scarcity – only about 5% of the total cranberry crop is sold fresh, the rest being dried and sweetened, or processed into juice, sauce, and jam.

Our most popular fresh cranberry recipe? Cranberry Fudge Pie, a graham cracker crust holding a thick layer of dark chocolate topped with fresh whole-cranberry sauce.

One of my favorites? Cranberry sauce made in a Zo bread machine, a quick and easy way to serve warm, homemade sauce with your Thanksgiving bird.

And, my mom’s favorite? Nantucket Cranberry Cake, a layer of sweetened fresh cranberries and walnuts topped with tender, moist yellow cake.

Hey, mother knows best, right?

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 10″ pie plate or 9″ square cake pan.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter, and drizzle it into the bottom of the pan.

Spread 2 cups (about 8 ounces) fresh or frozen chopped cranberries and 1/2 cup chopped walnuts over the butter in the pan.

Sprinkle with 1/2 cup granulated sugar.

In a mixing bowl, or the work bowl of a food processor, combine the following to make a smooth batter:

2 large eggs
3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup (4 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 teaspoon salt*
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

*Reduce the salt to 1/4 teaspoon if you use salted butter.

No baking powder, no baking soda? Yes, that’s right. This isn’t a typo. Trust me; it works.

Spread the thick batter over the cranberries and nuts in the pan, using a spatula or your wet fingers. Sprinkle coarse white sparkling sugar atop the batter, if desired; it adds pleasant crunch.

Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the cranberries are bubbly, and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean of batter or crumbs.

Remove the cake from the oven.

Serve warm, or at room temperature.

Yes, it looks messy. But believe me, you won’t be able to resist taking surreptitious swipes of that wonderfully tart-sweet cranberry-nut filling.

Serving this cake unadorned is fine – though a rich dollop of whipped cream or scoop of vanilla ice cream certainly wouldn’t be amiss…

Read, bake, and review (please) our recipe for Nantucket Cranberry Cake.

Print just the recipe.

PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!


  1. kaf-sub-shippeb

    Thanks so much for specifying that either fresh or frozen berries can be used — cranberries are harder to get where I live than hen’s teeth, so I hoard anything I can buy in the freezer but feel limited in where I can use them for fear they’ll ooze all over the place. But this will help me reduce my stash a bit!

    Definitely a great use for frozen berries. In general, frozen berries can be used anywhere fresh can – I’ve never seen a big difference between them, which is helpful to those of us (really, all of us – fresh cranberries have a short season) who like to hoard… PJH

  2. Andrea

    Hi, this recipe is on my must-serve-for-Thanksgiving list! Can it be baked the night before or is it best made same-day?

    Andrea, definitely can bake ahead of time. I suggest putting it in the still-warm oven when you sit down to dinner, and it should be nice and fresh-tasting by the time dessert rolls around. Enjoy – PJH

  3. JP

    This recipe looks fantastic and I am planning on trying it for Thanksgiving this year. Is it possible to prepare it the day before and then refridgerate overnight before baking the next day?

    Not recommended. The leaveners will become less active, and you will end up with a heavy bread.

  4. dawn01

    My daughter lives in south (New) Jersey and Ocean Spray also has cranberry fields( hundreds of acres). This weekend they have the Cranfest and I can buy large bags of fresh cranberries. They are also sold @ farm stands on the side of the road. I can’t wait to try this cake. I love the berries.

  5. Brenda

    Well, off to start a batch of this, some black bean soup, and the flax oatmeal bread from your latest Baking Sheet with some changes–all purpose flour replaced with www flour except for 2 tbsp. gluten and 1/4 cup potato flour; possibly with 1/4 cup of brown sugar added.
    I am a huge fan of black bean soup! Yum. Elisabeth

  6. 1fancybaker

    Loved this, especially warm. Kept taking bites while I was cooking supper! Think I would use a whole bag of cranberries, 12 oz. instead of 8 oz. I had a bag from Decas Brothers in Wareham, MA–used to live there years ago. I would also cut the sugar in the batter to 3/4 cup, as I would like more tartness from the cranberries. Loved the crunch of the walnuts. An awesome, easy fall dessert, extra good warm with vanilla ice cream…

    Definitely good with vanilla ice cream. And I can see using a pound of cranberries – and cutting the sugar, if you’re a real fan of extra-tart desserts… Enjoy! PJH

  7. Dean R.

    This was a quick, easy treat to make. The food processor did made quick work of cranberry chopping, and the batter was easily mixed by hand in a bowl. I used a slightly smaller pan, which meant a little extra time in the over to bake, but otherwise, no overflowing or other issues. Delicious!

    Glad you enjoyed it, Dean – PJH

  8. DrChuckie

    This was a big hit in the office Friday. I put 1/2 tsp Almond Extract. For the topping I did put a lot of Sugar in the Raw.
    My berries stayed on the bottom. I did not use a food processor to mix the batter, just did it by hand, to lazy to get out the Kitchen Aide. The flavor was great I will be making this for the Holidays.

  9. "Robin GC"

    Just made this. It’s very tasty, but my brain says, too sweet a nano-second before saying, TART! Same thing happened with the second and third “little taste…” (then I quit counting).

    It’s a keeper!
    Glad you like this recipe, Robin! Sounds like your brain waves were going wild! Elisabeth<b

  10. "Robin GC"

    Lady of Shallots

    Our Publix has a stash of frozen bags of cranberries in the frozen fruit section. Looks as though they take the leftover fresh bags and lob them into the freezer.


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